Harry Potter is over, which means it’s time for the younger members of the cast to redefine themselves as something other than their Potter roles. For Daniel Radcliffe, that meant taking on a couple of plays (with quite a bit of success) and playing the lead role of Arthur Kipps in the 2012 adaptation of Susan Hill’s horror novel, The Woman in Black.
Kipps is a grieving and possibly slightly suicidal widower after losing his wife in childbirth about four years before the start of the film. His employers decide he’s wallowed in his grief long enough (not that I blame him–four years of not being able to do your job properly? Those are some understanding bosses) and give him one last chance to prove himself. He’s to go to Eel Marsh House and sort through the paperwork amassed by its packrat, recently deceased owner, Alice Drablow. Before he leaves, Arthur arranges for his son to come up and join him for a holiday in the countryside in a couple of days, because nothing says family bonding like bleak, perpetually overcast marshland.
Naturally, as soon as he arrives in the rather depressing village, Arthur starts to notice the locals are a bit…odd, and they clearly can’t wait to get rid of him. Because his job’s on the line, Arthur refrains from asking any normal questions (like, why the hell are you people acting so strangely?) and goes to the house (a place so rundown and desolate even Miss Havisham would quake at the thought of living there), where he sees a veiled woman in black standing in the family graveyard and hears the sounds of a carriage accident. When he returns to the village, a little girl almost immediately commits suicide by drinking lye, and the villagers blame Arthur because he saw the woman in black. It seems that every time someone sees her, a child in the village or nearby kills itself (sometimes many children at once–she’s a vengeful bitch of a spirit, all right). Arthur dismisses this and is backed by the local landowner, Sam (Ciaran Hinds), who thinks this is all nonsense, despite the fact that his own son is believed to be a victim of the Lady. Sam’s wife (a rather wasted Janet McTeer) believes otherwise and thinks she can communicate psychically with her dead son, who appears to possess her from time to time.
On his return to Eel Marsh House, Arthur discovers that Mrs. Drablow had a son who drowned in the marshes aged 7, and that the body was never recovered. And he wasn’t actually her son–he was the child of her unbalanced, unmarried sister Jennet, who blamed Alice for the boy’s death and later committed suicide in the child’s nursery. Arthur has a bunch of freaky experiences throughout the night, including, at one point, seeing all the dead children for a minute, and man, there’re a lot of them, and finally seems to remember that his own child is on his way to this hellhole. He can’t warn him in time, so he and Sam decide to go fishing for the Drablow kid’s body so they can reunite him with his dead mother, just like she always wanted.
As horror movies go, this one served up some pretty good chills. The jump scares were distributed liberally throughout, and the emphasis was more on creepy atmosphere than massive bloodletting, but there was something missing in this film, and quite a few missteps. First up was the casting of Daniel Radcliffe in the lead. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like Radcliffe and think he’s a fine actor, but he’s playing the role of a man who’s been married, established a law career, and has a four-year-old child. He’d have to be in his late 20’s at the very least, and Radcliffe is not. I doubt he’ll look like he is even when he actually is in his late 20’s; that’s why he was able to get away with playing a teenager for years. Someone older needed to play this role. I think Hugh Jackman would have been awesome, but that’s just me.
The Woman was a problem as well. Far be it for me to question the motives of the dead, but why was she taking her frustrations out on the villagers? They did nothing to her! The explanation that her sister “took her child away from her, so she takes our children from us” seems murky to me. And why would she go on to specifically target Arthur’s son when Arthur was the only one who tried to help her? I mean, the guy dove through muck to retrieve the body of her son and lay it to rest with her, what more did she want? Of course, this can all be handwaved by the fact that this woman was very clearly capital “C” CRAZY even when she was alive, which actually just justifies her sister’s adoption of her son. Crazy moms don’t make good moms, even if they love their children.
And I couldn’t help but wonder: why the hell does anyone even live in this place anymore? I know that it’s hard to just pack up and leave, especially for those at the lower end of the social scale, but if your kids keep killing themselves horribly (drowning, self-immolation…) I think you’d move heaven and earth to clear out of there. Even the lawyer, who could certainly have set up a practice somewhere else, stuck around after his first child died, had another kid and watched that one die too. WTF, villagers? And did Alice Drablow continue to live in that house, haunted by her psycho sister? Did the Woman not torment her endlessly? Why bother with the village kids when she could just take her anger out on the sister who was actually the one who wronged her (in her eyes, anyway)?
Aside from all that, I felt a bit frustrated because I thought there was actually a good movie in here, we just didn’t quite get to it. There are a few hints that Arthur might be seeing visions of his dead wife, and if that was the case, then there could have been an interesting aspect to this–was Arthur just going a bit crazy and letting his imagination, the creepiness of the house, and local legend prey on him just a bit too much? Were the villagers and, especially, the more impressionable children suffering from some kind of mass hysteria (similar to what was seen during the Salem Witch Trials)? Could the supernatural aspect of this really be a matter of grief-induced madness and the sort of melancholy that often descends when you’re in a bleak, isolated place? If they’d pushed that a little harder, instead of spending so much time on creepy nursery toys winding themselves up and doorknobs rattling, I think we could have had something really interesting happening here. And if it had been explored further, it would have set up an interesting little triangle between Arthur, the Woman, and Sam’s wife, all of whom are going through the same thing and who, therefore, can understand each other better than other people can understand them. The movie needed a bit more Hitchcock to balance out the Wilkie Collins.
But no, there was none of that. Instead it was just a crazy, nasty ghost doing everything for no good reason whatsoever, and it was all tied up with an ending that left me genuinely confused as to how I was supposed to feel. Happy? Incredibly depressed? Wierded out? I really don’t know. Mostly I felt flat.
Was the movie a total disaster? No, not at all. If you’re just looking for some thrills and scares, it’ll probably suit you just fine (though if you’re a fan of the blood-and-gore types of horror films, you might not like this one.) And the set design and atmosphere were top notch. Acting-wise, it wasn’t bad either. Nothing special, but not bad. Like I said before, my only complaint is that Radcliffe simply wasn’t old enough for the role and I think it needed someone who could really project Arthur’s grief a little more. But that’s just me.
Final verdict: **1/2 out of *****